Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Bechukosai. The Tochecha and the Preciousness of Human Life

A version of this post originally appeared in 2011.  This has been updated with an addition at the end.

A dear friend, Harav Shmuel Yeshaya Keller (Rosh Mechina Telshe Chicago,) shared a nice thought from his father, Harav Chaim Dov Keller, on this week's parsha, and I'd like to share it with you.  The vort is his, the presentation mine.

We Jews understand intellectually and emotionally how very precious human life is.  I recently read a memoir written by a man with whom I am privileged to be very close, Avraham (Romi) Cohen, "The Youngest Partisan."  He describes his experience before, during and after WW II, during which he joined and fought with a group of non-Jewish partisans.  To this day, his courage and strength of character are preeminent.  He is a lion of a man, and it is wise to not stand in his way.  In his book, he describes the tortures he experienced and saw inflicted on others by the Nazis.  Once, his group caught a Nazi, and after questioning him, tied him to a tree facing forwards, with his arms behind him.  Romi was handed a knife and granted the honor of executing the prisoner; he was told not to kill the prisoner quickly.  Standing there, visions of what this man and his friends had done ran through his mind.  But he couldn't do it.  Or, more correctly, he certainly could have done it, but he refused to do it.  He handed the knife to his superior and said that he wanted to be 'mechabeid' him.  As he walked away, he heard as his officer began his work.

But not everyone is like that.  For many, even for Jews, there are brutalizing experiences that diminish our respect for human life.  Three times in the Torah, we are forewarned about this problem and cautioned to balance what we have seen with kvod habriyos.

After the great mabul, in Parshas Noach, when so many lives were lost, what would murder mean?  Nothing.  Is there any difference at all between 5,555,555 and 5,555,556?  Specifically there (Breishis 9:10) the Torah teaches us שופך דם האדם באדם דמו יישפך  כי בצלם אלוקים עשה את האדם , one who spills the blood of a man deserves the ultimate punishment, for man was created in Hashem's image.  The great flood was Hashem's will, and even if we were told the reasons it happened, we can never understand why it was necessary and just.  Our job is to remind ourselves, even under the worst circumstances, that human life is precious.

In Parshas Shoftim, the Torah teaches us the laws of war (Devarim 20:10) and siege against our enemies (20:19).  Immediately afterwards, we are taught the dinim of Egla Arufa, the calf that must be brought for atonement for the residents of a city when some unknown criminal murdered someone near their city- perhaps if the residents of the city had been more welcoming and supportive, had they made the visitor feel honored and respected, he would not have felt so impelled to go elsewhere that he chose this dangerous route that resulted in his death.  This is a stark contrast!  Yes, there are times of war and of siege, there are times when slaughter and starvation are necessary.  But the touchstone, the baseline, is that we need to atone even for not anticipating the feelings of an itinerant beggar.

In our parsha, we see the same thing.  The Tochecha speaks of the unspeakable, and horrifies all that hear it.  After the Tochecha, one might feel that life is just a great and dark abyss of futility, that tranquility and happiness are only a delusion, that human life is brutish and worthless and lasts just long enough to emphasize the delusion of hope.  So the Torah tells us the rules of Arachin.  Every human being is equally precious, no matter who, no matter when.  Never forget that your friend is worth exactly the same as you and as the Kohen Gadol and as the Melech Yisrael.  We are all created be'tzelem Elokim.

Reb Chaim B directs our attention to the Mei Hashiloach, from Rav Mordechai Leiner, the Ishbitzer Rov.  He suggests that Arachin focuses our attention on the redemption of pledges, and says the idea of redemption should be understood more generally.   The Parsha of Arachin following the Tochecha reminds us that there is always an opportunity to redeem onself.   Indeed, other than the introductory passuk of "Vayidaber Hashem el Moshe…" and the ending review passuk, there is an exact match between the thirty-three pesukim of Parshas Arachin and the thirty-three pesukim of the Tochecha.  Sometimes, Tochecha is the trauma that forces a person to realize that he must redeem himself through sincere Teshuva and Ma'asim Tovim.  Sometimes, the punishment itself is the means of attaining redemption.

I particularly like this vort because it is an anodyne for how I felt yesterday as I was being ma'avir sedra.  I noticed that the Eirech of a man between twenty and sixty is fifty (50) shekalim.  The eirech for a man past his sixtieth birthday is fifteen (15) shekalim.  It's not nogei'a to me for another year, but still....put that in your pipe and smoke it.  Which actually sounds like a very good idea.

UPDATE 5/13/14
I'm past my sixty first birthday, and I managed to survive the insult of my eirech dropping by seventy percent.

I saw two things over the last couple of days, and I am going to present them just as I saw them, without any comment, without any explanation of any reason I am putting them here.

From Harav Shternbuch Shlitah, at the end of Parshas Emor, in the story of the Megadeif, Vayikra 24:23.
ובני ישראל עשו כאשר צוה ה' את משה הורה בזה כי המצוה הזו תתחבב על בני ישראל ככל מצוות ה' ,ובאומות העולם שהורגים על חוקים שבדו מלבם , מלאכה בזויה היא וההורג בוש במלאכתו , אמנם בני ישראל מקיימים מצוות ה' בהריגה כמו שמקיימים מצוות תפילין ולא נחשבת להם כמעשה רציחה כלל   עיין ברמב"ן .

Before continuing, I want to point out that when Harav Shternbuch says  ולא נחשבת להם כמעשה רציחה כלל, he implies that if a Kohen would do this, it would not passel him under Reb Yochanan's din ( :ברכות לב) of  כל כהן שהרג את הנפש לא ישא את כפיו.  It is important to know that this implication should not be taken at face value, as we have discussed elsewhere.

and now back to my update,
להבדיל להבדיל להבדיל להבדיל להבדיל להבדיל להבדיל להבדיל להבדיל להבדיל להבדיל להבדיל להבדיל להבדיל
בין הקודש ובין המשוקץ המתועב והמגואל
להבדיל להבדיל להבדיל להבדיל להבדיל להבדיל להבדיל להבדיל להבדיל להבדיל להבדיל להבדיל להבדיל להבדיל

(BBC News 5/9/14) Shekau has neither the charismatic streak nor the oratorical skills of his predecessor - but he has an intense ideological commitment and ruthlessness, say people who study the group.
"He is the leader of the more militant wing of the group as testified by his aping of Osama Bin Laden in his video appearances," says Abubakar Mu'azu from the University of Maiduguri.
Shekau issued a chilling message in one of those appearances - which provides a major insight into what his leadership of the group will bring.
"I enjoy killing anyone that God commands me to kill - the way I enjoy killing chickens and rams," he said in the video clip released just after Boko Haram had carried out one of its deadliest attacks, in January 2012, killing more than 180 people in Kano, northern Nigeria's largest city.
Shekau is also the group's spiritual leader - and, judging by video footage, he seems equally comfortable delivering sermons to his followers.
"He has a photographic memory and is well-versed in theology," Mr Salkida said.
His followers nickname him "Darul Tawheed", which translates as a specialist in Tawheed. This is an orthodox doctrine of the uniqueness and oneness of Allah, which is the very cornerstone of Islam. 

HaRav Shternbuch mentioned that one should look at the Ramban here.  Here's the Ramban, and I don't know how he means to use the Ramban.
: ובני ישראל עשו כאשר ציווה ה' את משה - 
אף לסמיכה אף לדחייה אף לתלייה אף ללא תלין נבלתו על העץ, תורת כוהנים פרק כ י 

ור"א אמר: 
בפשוטו, כי עשו מאותו היום והלאה כמשפט הזה בחובל. ואינו נכון שיהיה כתוב על העתיד. 

ופשוטו, וירגמו אותו אבן כי עשו בני ישראל המצווה אשר ציווה ה' את משה, כי כן יכפול בכל השומרים מצוות השם, כמו שנאמר בפרשת הפסח (שמות יב כח), וכמו שאמר בפרשת הפקודים (במדבר א נד): ויעשו בני ישראל ככל אשר ציווה ה' את משה כן עשו, וכן במטות הנשיאים (שם יז כו): ויעש משה כאשר ציווה ה' אותו כן עשה. והנכון בעיני בכאן, מפני שפרט בתחילה הסקילה ואחר כן חזר ואמר ובני ישראל עשו, כי טעם הכתוב, לומר כי כאשר דבר משה אל בני ישראל הוציאו מיד את המקלל ורגמו אותו, ועשו כן כל בני ישראל לשמור ולעשות כאשר ציווה השם את משה, ולא לשנאת בן המצרי שנצה 
עם הישראלי אלא לבער הפגום מתוכם

If you ask me, I would say the Ramban is saying not like HaRav Shternbuch.  I would say that the Ramban is saying that killing someone is an ugly act that is only made not ugly if it is done to fulfill Hashem's will, and even then is is not at all like putting on Tefillin.
For example, like he says in Breishis 15:4.
 "כאשר תצא הגזירה על פי נביא יש בעושה אותה דינים, כי אם שמע אותם ורצה לעשות רצון בוראו כנגזר אין עליו חטא, אבל יש לו זכות בו.. אבל אם לא שמע המצוה והרג אותו לשנאה או לשלול אותו יש עליו העונש כי הוא לחטא נתכוון ועבירה היא לו

1 comment:

  1. The Ishbitzer at the end of Emor writes that the reason the Torah reiterates the sugya of choveil (which we already know from Mishpatim) of a person and even of an animal is to reinforce the concept of human dignity even as the punishment of skilah is being commanded.